We face barriers to free information access

The more we get used to the internet in our daily lives, the easier it can be to forget just what extraordinary potential this ­technology offers us.

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We're on the verge of a transformational change; a moment when all people across the face of our planet could have nearly instant access to the sum total of human knowledge, at the touch of a screen.

This idea is nothing less than revolutionary, and ours is the privileged generation which has the opportunity to turn it into a reality.

To do so will require more than just continued technological progress. Closing the gap between rich and poor countries, and the educational and wealth gaps within countries, will also be necessary to ensure network access for all.

But even once we enjoy a reliable and affordable connection, there are other barriers to free access to information.

Closed and proprietary systems, paywalls, data discrimination, aggressive protection of intellectual property, and incomprehensibly complex terms and conditions can all present such barriers.

These issues are not only technical; they can be political.

Restrictions on freedom of speech, and surveillance by state and private sector players who use data and metadata to monitor and manipulate citizens; these factors also risk tipping the balance of power in our online lives.

What should be a liberating, democratic and profoundly creative technology risks entrenching centralised power, unless we establish clear protection for our rights and freedoms.

Sadly there has been little space for public or political debate about these issues. Both the Scottish and UK governments acknowledge their responsibilities to develop the country's use of the internet.

But at both levels these responsibilities are framed in terms of 'Digital Economy' and 'Digital Participation'.

They're failing to address the deeper issues about how the net affects our lives.

This agenda must go beyond mere access to the internet.

Democratic participation means more than just casting a vote every few years; it means feeling connected to the decisions which affect our lives and having the power to hold decision makers to account.

Economic participation isn't just about having a job and an income; it's about the ability to make real choices about our lives and to live them as we'd wish to. Similarly, digital participation can't simply mean having access to the internet and a Google or Facebook account.

The Open Rights Group, which exists to raise awareness of digital rights and civil liberties, is currently fundraising to open an office in Scotland.

That would help to stimulate debate here about our relationship with the internet, and how we can ensure that it changes our society for the better.

Find out more at www.openrightsgroup.org

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